Bangladesh Rape Victims Say War Crimes Overlooked

Monday, September 5, 2011

Bangladesh is celebrating 40 years of independence, but two sisters who were both victimized by massive, brutal war-time rapes are in no mood to celebrate. They say their lives have been ruined and perpetrators have never been brought to justice.

DHAKA, Bangladesh (WOMENSENEWS)--A dust-caked plaque says Laily Begum is a Birangona: a brave woman, heroine of a national tragedy. A local youth group presented Begum with the plaque a few years ago. It is all she has been given in the way of recompense for what she suffered four decades ago and now it hangs loosely, and alone, from a wall in her living room.

"I cringe when I hear that word. It means a dishonored or violated woman," said Begum, 56, her deep voice taking on an angry edge.

The title Birangona is used to honor the 200,000 women who were raped by the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Bangladesh war of secession. But the name is synonymous with rape, abortion, suicides and war babies.

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There is a festive mood in Bangladesh because of yearlong celebrations marking 40 years of independence, but survivors of the mass rapes of 1971 say a small plaque is not enough when war criminals remain unpunished.

During the nine months of the war, thousands of women were gang raped and dumped into mass graves, their breasts chopped off. Those abandoned by their families slipped into India. Some killed their babies; others killed themselves.

Perpetrators were mainly of two types--some were members of the Urdu-speaking Bihari community and some were Bangladeshi--both supported by the Pakistani Army. They formed armed militia and committed atrocities on pro-liberation forces, according to government investigations and the research of civil society groups.

Those who survived, like Laily Begum and her sister Saleha, live in shame because their rapes left them tainted in the eyes of society and family members have treated their ordeals as taboo topics.

Everything Lost

Laily Begum was 16 and pregnant when the Khans--as the Pakistani Army was called-- kidnapped her. She miscarried and her husband was killed in the war. After months of gang rape, the Himayat Bahini, a freedom fighters group, rescued her.

"After we lost everything, our reputation, children, husband, home, we did not want them to get away with it," she told Women's eNews while in her apartment in Dhaka, which she shares with her daughter.

She stayed in the camps of the pro-liberation forces, where she learnt passionate war songs, frenzied chants and how to shoot guns.

"There was hatred in our hearts, we were determined to kill the Khans and save the country," she said.

She says their contribution remains unacknowledged. "But nobody remembers us. Where is our name in history? Which list? Nobody wants to thank us. Instead we got humiliation, insults, hatred and ostracism," she said, her face tight, tears trembling in her large brown eyes.

There was no healing or government effort to rehabilitate the rape victims. Laily Begum remarried with much difficulty as many suitors asked for hefty dowries because they were "loose women." She said she and her family were subjected to public humiliation.

The war victims need justice to heal, she said. "For me, even the death penalty is not enough. The war criminals should be cut into pieces and fed to the dogs. Only then I will find peace."

After the war, the leader of the independence movement, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, granted a general amnesty to all war criminals. Subsequent governments did not confront the controversial issue. But in recent years the Awami League government, led by Rahman's daughter Sheikh Hasina, has stepped up efforts to prosecute the war criminals.

Six accused are in custody; a war crimes tribunal is expected to try them in coming months. The War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, a civil society organization, published a list of 1,775 suspects after two decades of investigation.

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I can't believe that innocent victims of rape are labeled as taboos. These women are right; war crimes, especially rape, are greatly overlooked.

Reading this awful story only stokes my anger toward cultures in which women do all the work, while men do I don't know what, probably nothing. While I think it's vital to help women like these as they are and where they are, it seems it's time to pressure for change the governments of these countries that treat women as property and use illogical cultural "norms" to brand them as whores and sluts when these countries' men rape and mutilate with impunity. Since we are engaged in nation building in many parts of the world, why are we not building just societies for the women? In Iraq and Afghanistan this same kind of thinking is going unchallenged. How about conditioning our aid to Pakistan on substantial and measurable progress for enacting and enforcing laws protecting women's bodily integrity and rights?